The Collins-Hanie conundrum

In a way, Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith has been fortunate this week to have the national peanut gallery distracted by the Jay Cutler fiasco. It's taken the spotlight off what was, at the very least, questionable roster management at the position in the Bears' most important game of the season.

Aside from Cutler's departure, two key questions emerged after a 21-14 loss to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game:

  1. Why was Caleb Hanie, and not Todd Collins, designated as the No. 3 quarterback?

  2. What is the true reason for Collins' third-quarter departure from the game? Performance or injury?

While we have a moment here in this Super Bowl XLV bye week, let's tackle both questions.

The first question rarely comes in to play in NFL games. Teams have the option of classifying one of their three quarterbacks in a special game-day category, one that permits him to be in uniform but not count against the 45-man game day roster. If the third quarterback enters a game before the fourth quarter, the other two quarterbacks are ineligible to return to the game.

As you probably recall, Collins threw four interceptions in his only start of the season, a Week 5 victory over the Carolina Panthers. Hanie temporarily leapfrogged him on the depth chart afterward, but the Bears quietly reversed that move during their Week 8 bye. So when Cutler sprained his left knee Sunday, Collins was the next man up.

It's well known that offensive coordinator Mike Martz preferred a veteran as the No. 2 quarterback, but Sunday's events -- Collins went 0-for-4 before Hanie took over for a late-game run -- called into question the Bears' judgment. After that Carolina game, on what grounds could they have justified Collins as their primary backup?

As my ESPNChicago.com colleague Jeff Dickerson points out, Smith was at a loss to explain it himself. Ultimately, Smith said: "... We went through practice and we thought he gave us our best chance. We like a veteran being in that position. No more than that. You never know what your second and your third quarterback can do until they play again. Our guys got a chance to play, and we went through the process again with them.

"We gave No. 2 an opportunity, he didn't do the job, and we gave No. 3 [a chance], and we were really pleased with what he was able to do."

Which dovetails into the second question. Why did the Bears insert Hanie into the game with 57 seconds remaining in the third quarter, a decision that rendered Collins (and Cutler) ineligible to return? Had Hanie been injured, the Bears would have had to finish the NFC Championship Game with someone other than a quarterback taking snaps. If they had allowed Collins to take the Bears' final two snaps of the third quarter, both of which were running plays, they could have inserted Hanie to start the fourth quarter and maintained Collins' eligibility for emergency duty.

There have been mixed reports about Collins' departure. Watching the game live, it appeared he was flexing his shoulder after a hit on his final play. If Collins were injured, an immediate change would have been justified. But Smith made no mention of an injury to Collins. Saying, "No. 2 didn't do the job" strongly implies that Collins' departure was performance related. Indeed, Collins told Neil Hayes of the Chicago Sun-Times that it was a "coach's decision."

On the other hand, Albert Breer of NFL.com is reporting Collins is scheduled to undergo an MRI on the shoulder this week. Something doesn't add up here.

As we discussed Monday, I don't think this issue cost the Bears the game. But if nothing else, it caused a meaningless delay in getting the right quarterback on the field. The game ended in disappointment for the Bears, but they are fortunate it didn't end in embarrassment as well.